Not long ago, I was studying in a coffee shop in the late hours of the evening. It’s a beautiful place to read—high ceilings of hammered tin, warm woods, a banistered staircase to the loft-style art gallery above. It’s also a place with which I have a slightly uncomfortable relationship.
A Little Religion With Your Coffee (it’s not just a UU thing)
Just being there feels like bordercrossing, a bit—and perhaps it alerts me to some borders within myself. The large bookstore, adjacent, features the writings of Sarah Palin and Dinesh D’Souza, centerpieces of what I can only describe as a wall of conservatism. The news rack next to the coffee counter has a guide to “local Christian-owned businesses.” And the clientele . . . as in the numerous other coffee bars in town, most of us are students of one kind or another—but these students, though they look the same—look like sorority girls, philosophy majors, ultimate Frisbee players—talk with one another differently.
I know this because the line between private and public speech seems to blur a bit in this space. I keep headphones handy at all times not so much because I must have music while I write, but because I was once, in a different cafe, an unintentional recipient of an entire psychological history, transmitted by an applicant to a local assistance program to his case manager.
It’s an odd dynamic, those of us who share nothing interspersed like conversational hedgerows among those who share everything. And here, those who share aloud are often talking about their faith. So it is that I once sat adjacent to a truly engaging, multi-hour conversation between two young women—they may have been 20—about the movement of God in their lives and their sense of life as a spiritual journey. Wow, I thought—one does not hear this sort of thing every day . . . or even most Sundays. Another evening I attempted to finish an essay amidst a spirited and silly conversation about old testament justice (wishing, by the end of it, to enact a little “old testament justice” myself). And many times I’ve found myself reflecting upon my own prayers in light of those being offered nearby; these are generally both stirring in their earnestness and grating in their reliance on “Jesus, wejus . . .” as invocation.
I was thus not surprised to discover, rising to get some water, that a lively discussion had begun at a table nearby. The dynamic evolved, even as I watched, from a paired study table with occasional questions or asides to the larger group, to a preach-and-teach session, drawing in even those at surrounding tables. A man, later identified as a local youth pastor, held court. Josh was thirty-something, married, parent of an infant, handsome . . . and loud. And his selected topic for the evening was birth control.
We have begun to talk with one another in our Unitarian Universalist churches about the current focus on Reproductive Justice and what it might mean—and how, for those of us in states advocating for a complete overturn of Roe, we might engage the question politically. In these discussions, birth control has been mentioned, in fear and anger, as the next frontier of the conversation. And honestly, I haven’t entirely understood this. As someone who desires to see major cross-spectrum efforts to reduce our abortion rates by supporting women, families, and best practices in early childhood ed, the assertion that “they’re coming for the birth control next!” has boggled my mind. In short, why on earth would anyone–on either side of the aisle–argue for something likely to cause more unwanted pregnancies?
While I’ve mentioned that I can be a bit slow on the uptake, I think my incomprehension is partly related to how we have talked in this season—and how we haven’t—about the larger social implications of reproductive justice. So great is our fear and our rage that we have been ineffective in framing connections between what’s happening to abortion rights, what might happen next with birth control, and what it all means in a larger social picture. We, smart, savvy, dedicated people come together and, attempting to communicate the enormity of what is changing, find ourselves sputtering “patriarchy . . . control over women . . . turning back the clock . . . GAH!”
This matters, friends. If I don’t understand–and believe me, I genuinely want to–we face a double challenge in trying to communicate with those who would just as soon remain apathetic or unconvinced. As individuals and as a movement, we have to prod ourselves to ask the larger question of why we might be seeing a coordinated social movement to disempower women, particularly those of lesser means. And when we do ask, we need to manage our own anxiety, that we might wait long enough to hear the answers, and that we may wrestle expansively enough with them to begin to understand how to work in partnership with others concerned. We are a gentle, angry people . . . perhaps we could add “curious and questioning” to our social justice repertoire.
In the meantime, I finally began to understand, crossing borders in a coffeeshop, what I couldn’t quite get within our own movement. Youth Pastor Josh said, leaning back in his chair and raising his arms for emphasis, “There are only three reasons for using birth control: fear of God’s will, covering for sin, and selfishness.” One of the young women at the table began to challenge this, and Josh, gesturing a “down” motion with his palm, talked over her, saying, with an indulgent chuckle, “Wait, now. I’ve been through this same thing with the young ladies on our Israel trip, and also with my wife, who was unchurched and had to come to these things gradually. Let me explain.” His explanation centered, unsurprisingly, on the obligation to trust that what happens is God’s will, paired with the assertion that the sole purpose and entire responsibility of sex is to create new life. Later that evening, I posted the “three reasons” quote on Facebook, and a lively discussion followed, raising several points, of which I’ll deal with only one today: in avoiding a larger conversation about sex, we are allowing a discussion about birth control to frame our views of our sexuality, rather than vice versa.
Back in the midst of the in-person discussion, I didn’t have to wonder about the connection from the coffee house to the state house: Josh moved the conversation quite effortlessly toward a series of political actions. In the OB exam room, no one should be able to ask if a pregnancy is planned—no one can plan pregnancies; that’s God’s job, and the question is a first step toward abortion counseling. And we need to think very carefully about what it’s saying when we make birth control widely available—it shouldn’t be. Birth control should be an option of last resort. (Have we heard this before? It’s what I believe about abortion . . . and I find myself wondering where I got that.)
It’s hard to see within the confines of a conversation like this, but the move to limit access to birth control is indeed about controlling and enforcing social norms—and that happens because we allow our thinking to be defined by someone else’s agenda. I think there is something we can do about it. It’s something apolitical, yet purely seditious. It’s risky, but only in that it asks that we confront our own shame, and step out from behind it. It’s free. And it has the power to make a difference.
Friends, I think it’s time to talk honestly, frankly, and (here’s the social-norm-busting piece) publicly about sex. To say that sex isn’t just about procreation. To remind ourselves, and our policymakers, that it never has been.
Further, we need to assert that this statement is a religious one. Sex within the context of a committed relationship is not only sanctioned, by sanctified—required, in fact—by the Talmud. While procreation is certainly a sacred element, and one key purpose within this ethical framework, there are other purposes as well. Spiritual and psychological unity of spouses, celebration of the gift of physical presence that God has bestowed upon us, a living opportunity for practicing whatever principles call us to value another’s happiness as well as to respect and care for ourselves. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach celebrates these ideas, encouraging couples to remember and recognize the importance of their shared sexual life, in his book Kosher Sex. And he’s not alone—a number evangelical Christian writers have made a similar argument (see, e.g., Intimacy Ignited, by Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus, together with their husbands, or the blog Hot, Holy and Humorous).
Why, then, as a people of a less-restrictive faith—and one particularly concerned with reproductive justice–do we not address the often-unspoken cultural rules underlying the “3 reasons for birth control” argument?
In a sex-positive culture, it’s possible to recognize that are many reasons for birth control, and to separate a practical, effects-based conversation from a larger, ethics-based conversation. Our culture, on the other hand, is sex-phobic. As a natural and inevitable part of life, no social strictures are going to make sex disappear; we simply force it underground. We hear from the exceptions, the extremes, the ethically challenged . . . and we pretend like sex belongs to them, instead of to each of us. Could Unitarian Universalism and related movements take a meaningful stand to challenge this?
A few years ago, I read an argument that the unspoken reason for continued social resistance to normalizing homosexuality is because talking about it openly violates a key social rule: don’t require others to actually envision your sex life. The topic is so deeply personal that it makes us uncomfortable—and in a way that seems almost innate–to speak publicly about sex in any real way. It’s amazing, but words alone are sufficient to make us feel like intruders in a private space, or to draw us into unwanted intimacy.
So on that note, here’s the part that may cause some of you to go out-of-body. If you can, I encourage you to stay with me, and to think about what you might say about your own life—about your own relationships. A healthy sex life is a very important part of my adult, monogamous, family-centered relationship. It bolsters and deepens the bonds of our marriage; that’s critical during these years of less time to talk and more chaos, of balancing less money with more decisions to make. My husband and I are are two halves of a unified whole, and not in a way that could ever be true of a platonic friendship.
The state’s interest in marriage as a building block of society has been recognized again and again; I tell you, though: if we want healthy, functional families, we also want healthy adult sexuality, and political decisions that move us away from that possibility are likely to have unintended consequences. And there’s more: my husband’s and my truth is that our sex life has been saving, for both of us. If we truly trust God’s vision for humanity, rather than “fearing God’s will,” in Josh’s words, shall we not accept that in healthy sexuality God has given a great gift to us? Shall we not celebrate this rather than seeking to subvert (and, inevitably, to pervert) our sexual identities? Where’s the trust in that?
Sex, and sexuality, are part of the human condition. They are part of relationships. They are, potentially, a truly excellent part of marriage. And you know what? We needn’t apologize for that. But we do need to speak up for it. While this conversation may feel innately uncomfortable, I don’t believe that’s really the case. There are people who would like us to see sex as dangerous, and bad, and something to be carefully regulated lest we lose all control. Some people also feel this way about food; we fortunately have enough sense not to ask that they dictate dietary policy for the rest of us.
I have a right and a responsibility (born of self-love) to a healthy sex life. The current political situation in my state seeks to take that away from me, and I think it’s time to speak out. Those of us accustomed to merely sitting adacent to public dialogue, wearing headphones in the coffee bars of life–most of us, in other words–might be the ones from whom we all need to hear. So let’s keep talking about abortion. And yes, let’s talk about birth control. But let’s also find a way to talk, individually and in the collective, about sex, and what that looks like in real life, and why it matters. That’s what’s underneath all of this, friends . . . and our implicit don’t ask, don’t tell policy around the subject is allowing the terms of morality to be defined in a way that works for almost no one.